After Frank Grant lost his battle to play on integrated baseball teams, almost 50 years would go by before Jackie Robinson reintegrated the sport.
Grant played for six years on integrated minor league teams. Baseball historians considered him one of the best – if not the best – black ballplayer of the 19th century.
But racism forced him out of the white leagues and into the Negro Leagues, where stars earned a fraction of their white counterparts’ pay.
Though his skin color created controversy during his playing days, the sports world forgot all about him after he retired in 1903. Buried in a pauper’s grave in 1937, historians have recently rediscovered the story of Frank Grant.
He was born Ulysses Franklin Grant in Pittsfield, Mass., on Aug. 1, 1865 – a few months after the Civil War ended. He had eight brothers and sisters, six who survived to adulthood. His father, a farm laborer, died when he was four months old.
Frank Grant’s mother went to work as a domestic servant for Arthur Perry, a Williams College professor. His son, Bliss Perry, became a famous college English professor, novelist and editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In his autobiography, he wrote he was perfectly happy playing ball with Frank Grant and his brother Clarence.
In 1886, Frank Grant played for a minor league team in Meriden, Conn., that folded in mid-season for want of money. Then he signed with the Buffalo Bisons, a top-tier minor league team. He was one of five black players who played in baseball’s minor leagues.
The editors of Sporting Life disapproved of integrated baseball, asking, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” An umpire openly admitted to calling close plays against teams that fielded African-American players.
In a game he played in Toronto on July 27, 1887, the local newspaper reported, ‘the crowd confined itself to blowing their horns and shouting ‘Kill the n—-r!”
Buffalo had good reason to hang on to Frank Grant, who the manager called an Italian and some described as a Spaniard. He led the league with 11 home runs, batted .340 and stole 40 bases. He also played second base brilliantly.
Baseball writer Sol White, who wrote the first book about the Negro Leagues, said, “In hitting he ranked with the best and his fielding bordered on the impossible. Grant was a born ballplayer.”
By then, white players from the Binghamton ball club threatened to strike if the team’s two black players weren’t released. The International League responded by banning black players from signing new contracts.
That wasn’t all. Playing for Buffalo, Frank Grant had to duck at the plate when white pitchers tried to bean him. White runners slid into second base feet first, aiming their spikes at Grant’s shins. (He took to wearing wooden shin guards and later playing the outfield.)
When he traveled to play in Louisville, Ky., he had to eat and room with the hotel’s black employees.
But Frank Grant helped Buffalo win games. He also attracted many black fans, and he made a splash on the social scene. A New York newspaper featured an item about him.
He electrified Broadway recently by appearing in a blue corduroy coat, black and white striped trousers, yellow gloves, patent leather shoes with light drab gaiters, a slate colored fedora hat and a gold-headed cane.
Buffalo hung onto Frank Grant for the rest of the season, and for the next two, despite the International League’s new color line. The team did it by forming a new league. Buffalo’s white players, though, complained about playing with an African American, no matter how good. They refused to have a team picture taken with Grant in it.
Finally in 1889, Buffalo Bison management caved in to the players and released Frank Grant. Without him, the team collapsed and moved to Grand Rapids the next year.
In 1890, Frank Grant went to play for the Cuban Giants, the first African-American salaried baseball team. They weren’t Cuban and at 5’7” Frank Grant wasn’t a giant. But he hit like one.
Sol White explained why some teams called themselves Cuban. They wanted “to conceal the fact that they were just American Negro hotel waiters and talked a gibberish to each other on the field which, they hoped, sounded like Spanish,” he wrote.
But Frank Grant got caught up in the machinations of the early baseball teams and leagues, which routinely disassembled and reassembled.
The Cuban Giants moved to York, Pa., where they became the York Monarchs, an Eastern Interstate League team.
Their new rival, the Harrisburg Ponies, wasn’t pleased that the dominant Cuban Giants had joined the league. So the Ponies management pilfered Frank Grant from the Monarchs.
The Ponies, though, wanted to join a higher minor league organization. They petitioned to the Atlantic Association for membership, but they had a problem. The Atlantic Association, like the International League, didn’t have any black players. The Ponies stood firm, and the Atlantic Association admitted them. Frank Grant was now the only African American player in the league.
But Jim Crow wasn’t going away. Grant had to live in a segregated boarding house in Harrisburg. Players on opposing teams refused to play against Harrisburg if Frank Grant played. When playing in Baltimore, he didn’t stay at Kelly’s Hotel with the team, but lodged and ate at the headwaiter’s home.
In Wilmington, Del., the Clayton House refused to accommodate the team because of Frank Grant. So they found another hotel with the understanding that Grant would eat with ‘the colored help.’
In 1891, he returned to the Cuban Giants. Then he joined the New York Big Gorhams, as good a team if not better than the Cuban Giants. For the next decade, Frank Grant jumped around, the Philadelphia Giants, the Colored Capital All-Americans and the Genuine Cuban Giants. He spent winters in Williamstown, Mass., and played with local clubs when the weather allowed. The Blackinton Co., a North Adams textile manufacturer, sponsored a team he played on.
The Rest of the Story
After he retired from baseball in 1903 he lived the rest of his life in anonymity, working as a waiter in New York City, perhaps playing semipro ball in his spare time.
He died on May 27, 1938, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Clifton, N.J., where he never lived.
On April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson made his debut with the International League in a Montreal baseball game. The New York Times reported, “There have been other Negro players in the International League. ….Frank Grant played at second base for Buffalo and a Moses Walker caught for Newark in a game between those two teams on April 30, 1887.”
Though he never played in the Major Leagues, Frank Grant was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2006.
Five years later, the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project laid a headstone on his grave in the East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Section 14, Block B, Row E, Number 6.
Images: Frank Grant, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6140862; History of Colored Base Ball By Sol White(Life time: n/a) – Original publication: Sol White, History of Colored Base Ball. Philadelphia: H. Walter Schlichter, 1907.Immediate source: http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/sol-whites-1907-history-colored-base-ball, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42882527.
With thanks to John Thorn, Fame at Last, from Thorn Pricks, and Frank Grant by Brian McKenna at sabr.org. This story was updated in 2022.